Eyes shining, she showed her newly minted diploma from Portsmouth High School. Nearby were the mortarboard and tassel with the familiar gold and maroon PHS colors.
“I wouldn’t believe it until it happened. I kept saying, ‘How is this going to happen?’ How can I be getting my diploma?” Hill said.
But happen it did just this month, some 70 years after she left the halls of Portsmouth High without being able to complete her education. A farmer, small-business owner and nurse’s aide, she has led a full life, she said. But always at the back of her mind was that diploma.
“One of her regrets was that she didn’t go back and finish high school,” said daughter Tina Charpentier of Portsmouth. “She always wished she had.”
Jennie Hill was born in 1925 in Newington, 88 years and a different lifetime ago from the Portsmouth area of today. Her mother, a Polish immigrant, and she and her siblings lived in the house still standing across from the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Newington. When Hill was growing up, it was located on a 98-acre farm on what is today essentially the Mall at Fox Run parking lot.
“We had chicken, pigs, 30 cows,” she said. “The milk went to Badger Farm Creameries in Portsmouth. We sold eggs. We had a big strawberry patch and all the small stores in Portsmouth would come to us for strawberries, corn and potatoes.”
Fortunately, said Hill, even through the Great Depression she and her siblings were well fed, “but it was hard work. It wasn’t easy,” she said. “We’d get on the bus and smell like a cow barn!”
She recalls her mother making her sandwiches with homemade bread and meat raised on the farm. “I’d trade for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she said with a laugh.
Hill loved school, she said, “and I was good at it, too. I was one of the smartest kids in my class.”
But as elementary school made way for high school, she had to travel the 10 miles or so from the farm to Portsmouth High on Islington Street every day. She was getting a ride from a neighborhood boy who went to the high school as well, but at the end of her sophomore year, he graduated and moved away.
“I didn’t have any way to get to school anymore. What was I going to do? It was too far to walk,” she said. “Everybody said I was going to be sorry I had to leave school. And I was.”
By then, World War II was in full force — and Portsmouth was called into the war effort.
“I had to earn a living,” Hill said, so she soon made the decision to move to Portsmouth and work.
Ironically, she found herself working back at her old high school, soon after she had stopped taking classes there. The school’s machine shop had been outfitted into a manufacturing space, she said, with workers making gun barrels.
“I had teachers coming up to me and saying ‘why don’t you go to school, too?’ But I was working from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., so how was I supposed to do that? I had to work,” she said. “Back then, you couldn’t take classes on the side.”
She went from the high school to the Morley Button Company (now the Button Factory) on Islington Street, which had also been repurposed for the war effort. There, she made body bags and frames for gas masks.
“She really was Rosie the Riveter,” said PHS Principal Jeff Collins, who spearheaded the effort at the school to ensure Hill received her honorary diploma. “It’s fascinating to me to hear those stories of Portsmouth. As full of hustle and bustle as Portsmouth is now, it’s great to talk to people with that solid connection to what it was like in the ’30s and ’40s.”
Hill was married by 19 and a mother a year later, and off living her own life. She and her husband moved to Kittery in 1963, where she followed in her mother’s footsteps — raising animals and vegetables, selling produce, eggs and raspberries.
Her children lived much as she did growing up, living off the fat of the land.
“She’s an old farmer,” Charpentier said. “People are composting today, well, she’s been doing that forever. She’d know you have to add eggshells to the compost if it was going to be used for tomatoes. Things like that.”
The Rev. Kari Prichard, a chaplain at York Hospital, met Hill years ago at the community meal program the Table of Plenty, which Prichard co-founded. In recent years, she’s stopped by to visit with Hill and “she would tell me how much she wished she had that diploma.”
With the support of Hill’s children, Prichard called the school and talked with Collins.
“He could not have been more gracious and more interested in making this happen,” she said.
The big day came June 4. Hill’s family and Prichard gathered in Collins’ conference room, along with Collins, Superintendent Ed McDonough and School Board Chairman Leslie Stevens.
The ceremony was a replication of an actual high school graduation, with Stevens as the official representative of the Portsmouth School Department handing Hill her honorary diploma.
“Those people loved me to pieces,” Hill said. “When I was leaving, they said they were so glad I’d come.”
“It was an awesome thing,” Collins said. “It was an absolute pleasure to present it to her. For someone who has been through so much in life, to give her that closure piece was wonderful.”
It’s been a few weeks now since Hill received her PHS diploma. And, well, frankly, she’s still stunned.
“I can’t believe it yet,” she said, picking up the portfolio that holds her diploma, opening it and looking again at the document that tells the world she is an honorary graduate of Portsmouth High. “I keep looking at it to make sure my name is still there. Really, I’ve been wishing for this for so long. Now I don’t have to wish anymore.”